The Geneva show always provides an annual shot in the arm for the motor industry. It’s at the start of spring, in a bubble of snow-capped mountains and clean air, with the God Particle leaving nearby. Switzerland has no OEMs so it’s neutral – no Frankfurt or Paris-style shows of national strength. And it allows the niche producers to sit among the big players in the main halls, so exotica and design are as prominent as commoditised volume cars. It’s a good place to be, even in a post-recession landscape.
But, ironically in a market showing the first signs of sustainable recovery, this year the event came with an unusually large dose of reality. It’s as though the industry doesn’t want to push its luck, to be distracted from a hard focus on that recovery. Which is hardly surprising: in spite of five consecutive months of growth in Europe, sales are still a very long way off pre-recession levels – three million units in fact. Almost all of the OEMs are losing money in Europe, and incoming PSA CEO Carlos Tavares was quoted in Geneva saying that making money hasn’t been part of its culture, and neither was it at his previous employer, Renault.
So it was appropriate that many of the key press day launches were focused on the more fertile market opportunities. But that paradoxically comes with some challenges – for both bottom lines and brands.
The rash of new city cars from Toyota, Peugeot, Citroen and Renault will deliver volumes. They’re cars for our time – cheap, urban cars with an injection of fashion, fun and flair. But small cars and small price tags also offer small margins, especially when they have the quality demanded by downsizers and the Apple generation. The development cost-sharing for the Toyota Aygo, Peugeot 108 and Citroen C1 will have helped, as will the Renault’s Twingo’s joint development with Daimler’s next-generation Smart. But these are not the cars those companies really want to be shifting. They’re cars for the marketers, not the FDs, better for long-term customer acquisition and upselling than short-term profits.
BMW’s 2-Series Active Tourer has properly given its brand and marketing people something to think about. It’s two things a BMW has never been before: front-wheel drive and a family MPV – in effect, an aspirational Kia Carens. Mercedes-Benz has trodden the MPV path already with the A-Class, and has reverted from a clever, one-box design to a conventional hatchback. The B-Class has retained the one-box shape, but Mercedes makes vans; BMW makes the Ultimate Driving Machine.
However, BMW’s strategy is conservative compared with what led to the Geneva debut of the Porsche Macan compact SUV. Barely a decade ago, ‘Porsche’ and an ‘SUV’ didn’t belong in the same garage, let alone the same sentence. Now, thanks to the Cayenne, they’re synonymous, and over half of Porches are front-engined and four-wheel drive. The SUV may have saved Porsche but the company made the SUV a global phenomenon.
I’m not sure BMW will be hoping that it does the same for the front-wheel drive people carrier. It’s brand people may have to be as clever as its engineers over the coming years.